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  • Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy's Westerns by James Dorson
  • Steven Frye (bio)
Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy's Westerns, by James Dorson. Campus Verlag: Frankfurt/New York, 2016. 360 pp. Paper, $48.00.

We live within narratives, whether those narratives are the books we read, the national myths we respond to, or the story oriented constructs by which we create meaning and organize our lives. But authors such as Cormac McCarthy unsettle those dominant narrative forms by presenting alternative structures that open new and liberating ways of perceiving individual events in history and the grand myths that have defined the American imaginary. This is the central claim of James Dorson's rich and compelling Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy's Westerns.

The volume is divided into two main parts with a series of chapters within each, the first dealing with narrative theory and the second the application of that theory to the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985), and the Border Trilogy, which includes All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). Part I of Dorson's study, "Narratives and Counternarratives," integrates a disparate body of modern and contemporary narrative thought, including but not limited to ideas developed by Hayden White, Jean Francois Lyotard, Theodor Adorno, and Frederick Jameson. In Chapter 1, "The Power of Narrative," the assumption is that for the human mind narrative is key to perception and functions as a manner by which we order and mitigate the "shifting phantasmagoria" (20) of sense experience, rendering it comprehensible and even meaningful. Dorson elucidates notions of enclosure and emplotment, the primary structure by which narrative takes shape and provides strength and legitimacy to the act of reading the world and interpreting its significance. But the inevitable and unavoidable force of narrative "does violence to the material world" and in doing so hides its own power in the process (28). Chapter 2, "Counternarrative Possibilities," suggests that narrativity is inherent in the human response to the reality we experience and the process of narrative construction is tremendously complex. Spaces remain for authors such as [End Page 78] McCarthy to provide "counternarratives" that function as natural systems of checks and balances that resist the oppression and misperception common to dominant myths, particularly national and cultural ones. But because of the universality and force of narrative power, these counternarratives must be themselves inherent to the structure of the dominant form, providing alternative ways of perceiving that remain within the confines of story, plot, and the closure that gives it meaning.

After elucidating these ideas and integrating them into an interpretive model, Dorson then goes on to apply them to scholarly texts from the earliest stages of the American Studies project. He pays particular attention, as the book title suggests, to Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950). This landmark study proved to be tremendously influential in the development of American Studies as a discrete discipline, and together with other works such as Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964) contributed to the development of a grand narrative of American historical conception. Of course, given the history of the West, the colonization by the Spanish and French, as well as the numerous Native American peoples that occupied the region, the land was by no means "Virgin" Land, neither innocent nor pristine. But historical reality does little to counteract the story that served to organize the nation's conception of the past. Particularly important here is the manner in which this narrative serves to unify mythic concepts of "nation" and the very real structures of the "state," particularly through the use of emplotment and closure so central to what came to become the national ideal. But Dorson argues convincingly that our awareness of the relative falsity of these myths does little to counteract them. The act of replacement must be cultivated at the deepest cultural level, since it operates on "different cultural, affective, and political registers" (107). But this transformation is...


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